What to Know When Renovating a Philadelphia Rowhouse

From challenges and solutions to expanding square footage and tips on preparing for the process

With your Philadelphia rowhouse, you’re part of Philly’s unique personality with restaurants, friends, and schools within walking distance. The character of Philadelphia is defined by its rowhouse streetscapes.

Rowhouses are space-efficient, compact, and often cost-effective. Renovating a Philly rowhouse comes with its share of joys and challenges. Sweeten lays out what you can expect with renovating these historic buildings.

Sweeten matches home renovation projects with vetted general contractors, offering advice, support, and up to $50,000 in renovation financial protection—for free.

What is a rowhouse in Philadelphia?

A Philadelphia rowhouse is an urban one-to-four-story house that has a narrow front exterior. Rowhouses are attached to similar rowhouses on both sides.

Philadelphia has more rowhouses than any other type of housing structure. Designed as an inexpensive way to house Philadelphia’s rapidly growing industrial population, rowhouses have become desired, premium properties.

Some Philly rowhouses are quite large. Rittenhouse Square mansions can be as huge as 3,000 to 6,000 square feet. Most Philadelphia rowhouses are small to moderate in size, though. Trinities and Bandboxes (smaller versions of Trinities) can be as tiny as 400 to 600 square feet. Two-story rowhouses in Center City, South and North Philadelphia, and Manayunk can range from 1,000 to 1,600 square feet.

Remodeling a Philadelphia rowhouse: Challenges and solutions

Because Philly rowhouses are unique, renovating them can present challenges. But to an experienced contractor, solving these issues is just a part of the daily work of creativity and flexibility.

Philly-area-based Sweeten contractor John calls his approach “bob and weave,” after a boxer’s split-second, nimble approach to punches that come their way. “Rowhouses don’t always need to be more difficult,” said John, “because we try to be flexible.”

John cites his approach to debris removal as an example. It’s no problem to park rolloff dumpsters in the driveway of a suburban single-family detached house; you just do it. But when a dumpster needs to be parked on a public street, all sorts of permitting issues arise. With COVID-19 slowing government processes to a near-halt, it’s been “next to impossible” to secure permits, said John.

John’s solution is to cycle out debris every day. “A hauling company picks up the daily load and some of my guys have trucks, too, so they can move debris.”

Narrow doorways are obstacles to moving in building materials and appliances. Sometimes the old 30-inch doorways have been widened already. When they haven’t, John calls this one of his biggest problems with rowhouse remodels. But he can always find workarounds by temporarily removing door trim or by unboxing appliances.

Ways to increase square footage in rowhouses

Squeezed in on both sides, the average rowhouse is fairly small. So, remodels need to be creative. Some contractors build soffits (or bulkheads) over exposed pipes, wires, and vents. However, doing this reduces space. “We like to avoid building soffits,” says Sweeten contractor Mario, who is based in Philadelphia, “and most homeowners don’t want soffits, either.”

So, Mario finds it worthwhile to reroute pipes and electrical through walls and ceilings. “It gives it a cleaner look and that’s what people want.” In some cases, Mario will push out a wall or ceiling a smidge. “If the ceiling is 10 feet or more, we might drop the ceiling just a little to run services through there.”

For homeowners who want more room, there is always more space to be had in the back or upward. “Pilot houses,” says Mario, referring to rooftop decks, “are one of the most popular ways to expand upward.” Plus, he sees some clients purchasing two adjacent rowhouse units and removing the wall between the two. This effectively doubles the rowhouse square footage.

Permitting and approvals for remodeling a Philadelphia rowhouse

With most substantial Philadelphia rowhouse remodels, you’ll need permits. Any alteration that costs $10,000 or more requires drawings of the proposed construction. These drawings must have the seal or stamp of a licensed architect or engineer.

Sweeten general contractors can refer an architect if the services of one are needed. Having an experienced architect and general contractor by your side will help you move through the permitting process more easily.

Not every Philly rowhouse is a historically designated structure. However, thousands of them are! If yours is one, you’ll need to seek authorization and go through a separate approval process with the Philadelphia Historic Commission.

Check the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places to see if your home is designated as historic.

4 tips for renovating a Philly rowhouse

  • Be ready for costlier materials

Renovating a newer home means that you can use a wide range of materials. Many homeowners can find off-the-shelf materials at the local home center to use. But historic Philly rowhouses have masonry, molding, trim, ornamental metals, walls, and ceilings of a more specialized—and costly—nature. Prepare by padding your materials budget.

  • Be available

Remodeling a Philly rowhouse isn’t a “set it and forget it” project. Be available and responsive to everyone working on your project, including the architect, contractor, or project manager.

  • Predict the unpredictable

Prepare yourself and your budget for contract change orders (changes that alter the original scope agreed and signed upon). Change orders help your remodel project adapt to unexpected discoveries along the way.

  • Rely on your experts

Unless your daily job is renovating rowhouses, the experts you’ve hired know more than you do. After all, they do this on a daily basis. You’re not just hiring a pair of hands; you’re taking advantage of years of experience and knowledge.

Starting a Philadelphia rowhouse remodeling project? Understand the process of renovating a Philadelphia rowhouse, and along with the right team, you’ll have the guidance you need for your dream home.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation with Sweeten.

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